BY DAN McGRATH
It’s one of the cooler rituals in baseball: The starting pitcher, having finished his warm-up, strides purposefully from bullpen to dugout, accompanied by his catcher and pitching coach. The scene evokes a heavyweight boxer and his retinue of cornermen entering the ring for a title fight, trying to look composed but nervously wondering if he’s done enough to handle what awaits him.
The title-fight analogy was relevant in the case of Chris Sale at Wrigley Field on Thursday night. As he marched from the right-field bullpen to the first-base dugout with Don Cooper and Dioner Navarro trailing, Sale faced the most important start of his seven-season, 216-game career.
He was trying to regain the trust he had jeopardized with a clubhouse outburst that cost him one start and a five-game suspension. You know the particulars: Incensed at having to wear an ugly, dysfunctional throwback uniform, Sale took a sharp object to his own and several teammates’ offending threads, shredding them beyond wearability.
Angered by this petulant breach of decorum, the White Sox sent Sale home, then suspended him. His team won four of the five games he missed, and the finale of the Crosstown Series represented Sale’s first attempt at character recovery, before a raucous sellout crowd.
If he wasn’t vintage Chris Sale, he delivered a plausible impersonation with six innings of six-hit, two-run pitching. But John Lackey was slightly better, and the Cubs won 3-1, salvaging a split of a four-game series the Sox really needed to win.
“We’ve seen him sharper, but he certainly pitched well enough to win,” manager Robin Ventura said. “Lackey was just better.”
Sale’s electric stuff was slightly off after a 10-day layoff. He walked three (one intentionally), hit a batter and needed 111 pitches to cover six innings. Thirty of them came in a difficult first inning, when Kris Bryant lined an RBI double off the wall in right-center to score Dexter Fowler after Fowler coaxed an eight-pitch walk.
Sale owned Bryant in the Cubs star’s rookie season, striking him out all six times he faced him. But Bryant took sale deep in the All-Star Game and continued to get even with his well-struck double.
Sale’s lack of sharpness was evident again in the third when he nicked Fowler with an 0-1 pitch, walked Bryant on four that missed badly and yielded an RBI single to Ben Zobrist to trail 2-1.
Sale said he felt like he was “on an island” during his suspension, “and it [stunk].” He appreciated the support he received via text messages from teammates, and he was greeted warmly when he arrived in the visiting clubhouse at 4:42 p.m. Thursday, exchanging handshakes, hugs and back slaps as he made the rounds of the cramped, muggy room.
“I have an unbelievable group of teammates, and I know who they are now,” he said. “When I let them down, it hurts me more than it hurts them.”
Beyond that, Sale was reluctant to discuss particulars of the incident, including his motivation, and whether an apology is in order.
“It is what it is,” he said. “Talking about it is counterproductive to winning games, which is what we’re here to do.”
It was not, Sale insisted, a ploy to force a trade to a contending team that might be a better fit for his hyper-competitive nature.
“I want to stay here. I really do. I want to move past this. I want to play, I want to pitch and be there when my name is called.”
The Sox got the tying run to third base with two outs in the eighth inning, but the Cubs summoned newly acquired mega-weapon Aroldis Chapman and, well, game over. Chapman registered a four-out save with a speed-of-light fastball that consistently topped 100 mph and had the crowd roaring in amazement.
The series split means more wheel-spinning in a season in which running in place has been the Sox’ team dynamic. They missed a chance to reclaim the momentum they had gained with crisp, well-played victories in the first two games of series, and they’re back below .500, which represents the distant periphery of playoff contention.
“We’ve been flat on our back, we’ve had standing-eight counts, but we’re still here,” Ventura said.